We’re living in a hyperconnected world where most of us depend on devices to work, communicate, shop, remember important details, and get from point A to B. At the same time, we often fail to think about how those gadgets are manufactured, what materials they’re made from, and what to do with them when they stop working. We generally toss old devices in the trash or throw them into a drawer and move on to the newer model. Equally consequential, we sometimes return these devices to stores, and retailers toss them away.

As a result, we’ve collectively created an excessive stream of electronic waste (e-waste) clogging up landfills with toxic chemicals. Our constant desire to upgrade those electronics causes manufacturers to source non-renewable materials for new product development. To combat this digital epidemic, consumers, manufacturers, and retailers must think more about the impact of technological innovation and collaborate on a solution to support forward progress and sustainability. Where there’s a will there’s a way. 

E-waste Impact

Improperly tossing devices has a significant impact on human and environmental health.

On humans

The vast majority of electronic waste is unregulated and is especially challenging in developing countries with inadequate waste management. As a result, people are ingesting dangerous chemicals from plastics, lead, mercury and cadmium that have seeped into the air and water streams. Some of these chemicals like heavy metals are toxic even in tiny amounts and can reach people thousands of miles away, according to a recent study in India. And children are most vulnerable to the health risks of e-waste, which can include damage to lungs, kidneys, bones, heart, liver, spleen and the nervous system. Additionally, the byproducts of these chemicals are carcinogenic and well as hormone disruptors. 

On the environment

When consumers throw away old devices or retailers toss excess inventory, they create millions of metric tons of flammable and toxic waste every year. In fact, the Global E-waste Monitor estimated e-waste production to rise to over 50 million metric tons by the end of 2021. Improper handling and disposal of  e-waste pollutes local land and groundwater, which puts food supply systems and water sources at risk. Moreover, incineration of e-waste produces harmful CO2 emissions. In fact, every device produced has a carbon footprint that contributes to man-made climate change, according to a recent United Nations report. For every tonne of laptops produced, 10 tons of CO2 gets released into the atmosphere. 

How We Got Here

Our consumption model for technology is linear and, therefore, unsustainable. In this approach, manufacturers take minerals out of the earth and craft them into shiny gadgets. Consumers buy those gadgets, use them for a while, then throw them out or stow them away. In other cases, consumers return those gadgets to stores where the devices suffer a similar fate. This model means every item has a beginning, and (sometimes, a premature) ending. 

A part of the issue is technology is evolving at an ever more rapid pace. Companies are continually introducing new models, and they’re not producing these items with repairing, reusing, or recycling in mind. This presents a massive challenge for both consumers and refurbishers who don’t have the tools or knowledge to repurpose them.

Moreover the process to manufacture these new items is far from sustainable. It takes over 200 pounds of precious raw material to make a single cell phone, which means non-renewable minerals are extracted from the earth to feed the new product development supply chain. But what if we could reduce the impact by removing parts from old devices to make new ones instead?

We also need to consider the issue of planned obsolescence driven in part by profit motives. Device manufacturers need to make high margins. And the best way to do that is to garner new product sales. That means manufacturers have an inherent incentive to make their electronics as challenging to repair as possible. If customers don’t know to replace their iPhones’ battery, for example, they’re probably going to buy a new one when the phone slows down.

Consumers’ ability to access innovative new products at the click-of-a-button is beneficial at the surface. But it also means people must needlessly spend more money, while the environment and human health suffers.

The Bottom Line

To overcome the complicated e-waste epidemic, we need to have a more honest dialogue between manufacturers, consumers, recyclers, and the industry at large. Perfectly useful devices aren’t doing anyone any good by polluting landfills or taking up closet space. That’s why we must all work together, get educated, and learn how to care for our devices.